What is the state of ‘black Berkeley?’ a gathering of community activists ponders

The Legendary Mighty O’town Passions sang at the start of the gathering on the state of black Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On what would have been Malcolm X’s 92nd birthday, about 50 people gathered at the South Berkeley Senior Center on Saturday to discuss the “State of Black Berkeley.”

The topics were weighty: housing displacement of blacks in south Berkeley; education for black students, economic disparities, the disproportionate number of low-birth-weight black babies; and discrimination in the workforce and by police.

After the organizers showed a short film clip about Malcolm X, Richie Brook-Cole Smith, who is widely known as “Ms. Richie,” or the “Mayor of South Berkeley,” because of her long-time involvement with children and the community, opened the gathering. She gave a brief description of what south Berkeley used to be like. Smith arrived in 1949, right after thousands of blacks came to the Bay Area in World War II to work in the shipyards, and has raised her children and grandchildren here. For decades, south Berkeley was the busy center of black life in Berkeley, with many black businesses and community organizations. But she has seen that change.

“When I arrived it was a much, much different place,” she said. “It was a more vibrant community.”


Census figures reveal this transformation. In 1970, about 27,421 blacks lived in Berkeley, making up 23.5% of the population. In 2010, there were 11,241 African-Americans in Berkeley, making up 10% of the population. By 2016, that percentage, in a city of 121,240, had dropped to 8.6%, according to U.S. census data.

Much of the talk appeared to reference the fact that blacks are not participating equally in the economic boom that has transformed the Bay Area, a boom that means that the median wage for Facebook employees is about $240,430 and the median price for a house in Berkeley is $1,317,283, a jump of 12.5% in the last year, according to Zillow.

In fact, many of the speakers suggested that blacks are losing ground in housing and employment.

“All morning, looking at this nice sweet girl getting married to the king [sic], we’re poorer than we have been in 70 years,” said City Councilman Ben Bartlett, referring to the marriage of Meghan Markle, a biracial American, to Prince Harry. “Meanwhile, 70% of the homeless in Berkeley are black.  Meanwhile, we’re poorer than we have been in 70 years. Meanwhile, we’re looking at a 15% literacy rate among the next generation. And the next generation is supposed to have zero assets. Super poverty. And it’s a-ok because one of us got married to the king and we had a black president for eight years. We have got to claim our autonomy. That’s our number one job.”

Bartlett, who is running for Assembly District 15, conveyed to those gathered that nobody has blacks’ backs, and it is incumbent upon the black community to fight for equality. He said he gets daily calls from his black constituents about people giving them the evil eye in Whole Foods; about people calling police when three black men gather to talk on a street corner but no one calls the police about the white people who have camped out on a median for two years; about other issues.

Bartlett said he had just returned from an East Coast trip where he tried to talk to young blacks about moving to Berkeley. Even though he reminded them that Berkeley is where the Fair Housing Act was started and the Black Panthers first organized, the youths had little desire to move here. Instead, they talked about moving to Oakland or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Houston, cities that they considered have a stronger black culture.

“They say no,” said Bartlett. “It’s so infuriating. They have this illusion that we are not home to them.”


But then Bartlett went on to say that maybe it’s not an illusion. Maybe Berkeley is hostile to blacks.

“The standards you and I are living under are not fair. They’ll never be fair. We have to take control of ourselves and create our own prosperity.”

The relationship between Berkeley police and the black community also came up. Some speakers referenced a report recently released by the Center for Policing Equity which showed that Berkeley police stop black and Hispanic drivers “at much higher rates” than white ones.

“Black young men… I don’t know how they even breathe,” said Barbara White, one of the emcees of the event and a leader of the African American/Black Professionals & Community Network, which was also a sponsor. “They are under attack constantly.”

Evidence of the community working to better conditions for those living in Berkeley was also evident on Saturday. Mansour Id-Deen, the head of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP, spoke of different issues the group has pushed to the fore, including four lawsuits filed against the Berkeley Unified School District regarding its treatment of black staff. Numerous people are working with the city to create the African-American Holistic Resource Center, a one-stop place for blacks to get services around health, mental wellness, and equity. Yvette Holtz spoke of the creation of BAOBOB, which stands for the Bay Area Organization of Black-Owned Businesses. She said it is an online resource so people can learn about black businesses in order to patronize them.

The issue of the Adeline Corridor came up many times during the day. As the city of Berkeley works with the community to re-envision the corridor, its residents must work to ensure affordable housing is built, some said.


“The first stage to stability is housing,” said Id-Deen. “Unfortunately we are seeing people leave the city because they are losing their employment, so they are losing their housing. We need low-income housing,” along Adeline Street.

City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila encouraged people to get involved by joining commissions and to vote. She mentioned the school district race as one Berkeleyans should pay special attention to.

Participants at the gathering to discuss the state of black Berkeley were offered a huge buffet. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

There were moments of levity in the day as well. All the participants were offered a gourmet buffet with baked chicken, fried chicken, eggs, bacon, quiche, muffins, fruit, and more. The Legendary Mighty O’town Passions, whose members have been singing together since 1960, performed. Kwesi Wilkerson, the projects coordinator for the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, one of the workshop’s sponsors, performed a poem about the perils of tobacco use and the lure of menthol. And the entire room sang the Black National Anthem in unison.